On New Year’s Day the Lakers lost to the Sixers to fall one game below .500 — 15-16. It’s obviously a whole long way from where they imagined they would be at the start of the season after totally overhauling their roster. There are signs of progress, though. Steve Nash is back, and the team has won six of their last eight. Despite their woes, they are also just a game and a half out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. So, is this team heading to the playoffs? I’m certainly not betting against it, though the road won’t be easy. Let’s take a look at the challenges and opportunities:
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Extrapolating last 10 games record to full season - The Lakers have gone 6-4 in their last 10 games. Given their talent and the fact that they are the healthiest they have been all year, it seems reasonable that they could maintain at least that pace the rest of the way. That would get them to about 45 wins. The last full NBA season was 2010-11, and that year it took 46 wins to make it into the playoffs in the West, and just 37 to make it in the East. Over the last five full seasons it has taken an average of 47.2 wins to make the playoffs in the West, and it took as few as 42 one of those years. They would get to within the range of contending just by maintaining their recent play, and it’s certainly not unreasonable to think that they could put together a nice winning streak or two. Nothing is guaranteed, of course, given how disappointing they have been so far, but I feel reasonably confident believing that this team will have the wins to be in the mix. Given that, they also need to be sure that they can pass at least two teams in the standings since they that they currently sit 10th in the hunt for eight playoff spots.
Vulnerable teams ahead of them - Four of the teams ahead of them in the standings — Minnesota, Houston, Portland, Denver — have their share of issues that make their continued success far from guaranteed. All four are within two games of the Lakers right now. None are struggling at this moment — they all have better records over their last 10 games than the Lakers — but none have the talent or potential that the Lakers could have if they were to find a way to play together. Houston is lousy on the road, and Lin and Harden still aren’t developing the chemistry they need. The Nuggets have been terrible on the road. Portland lacks depth, and their success is built around the stunning play of a rookie. Minnesota is struggling to stay healthy. There is no team there that it would be impossible for the Lakers to catch and pass if they find their game.
Can they win the division? - The easiest way to make the playoffs is to win your division. That way you are guaranteed to make it regardless of the records of the rest of the teams in the conference. So, can they win the Pacific — a division they have long dominated? Probably not. They are 9.5 games behind the Clippers right now. The other L.A. team just saw their 17-game winning streak end, and have been playing exceptional basketball. Their starting lineup is strong, their point guard is brilliant, and they have one of the best benches in the whole league. The coaching could be more inspiring, but it’s still hard to imagine this team stumbling enough to blow a huge lead like this in 50 games. If they went 24-26 from here on out they would still finish at .600 on the season. The Lakers would have to close out at 35-16 to pass them if they sputtered that badly, and the Clippers aren’t going to falter like that. The Lakers will have to earn their own way in.
Health - Can Nash stay healthy? Kobe? Howard? Gasol? The team has already shown how much the team struggles without one of their stars in the lineup for a long period of time, and they would likely struggle to maintain their success without one of the big three. It’s a gamble — especially with Nash so fragile and Howard not yet fully recovered from his back issues. The bigger issue is that even if they stay healthy, they can’t get any younger. After the last two games Kobe has blamed the age of the team for a lack of energy and stamina. Kobe loves to whine, so the issues aren’t likely as significant as he suggests, but it is still a factor — especially considering that the team plays back-to-back games 10 more times this year. The talent this team is built around will get them to the promised land — but only if they can all stay on the court long enough to lead them there.